NOVEMBER 30, 2017
IN 1988, I slept behind a curtain in the living room of a one bedroom apartment on Third Avenue and 16th Street. My roommate was an aspiring actress: she found the apartment so she got the bedroom. We met on a temp job. She didn’t want to go to college. I liked her energy and her determination. She waitressed at the Blue Note at night and went to auditions during the day. On line at Nell’s, the club on 14th Street, we were always waved in by the bouncers while the rest of the crowd had to wait behind the velvet rope. I was in my second year of course work headed toward a PhD in French at the Graduate Center. I wanted to be a writer, but I was drifting, grabbing at straws, and going to classes because that was all I knew. I started going to see a therapist in training at the Graduate Center. She was a serious young graduate student in psychology who wore floral print dresses and large glasses. She always looked very earnest. I had secret contempt for her: why would anyone intelligent listen to my lies and obfuscations as patiently as she did? I lied to her about almost everything, as I lied to myself and to my friends.
When Australian critic Paul Taylor recruited me to write art reviews for Flash Art, I jumped at the chance. We met through his friend Mary Anne Staniszewski who was in Rosalind Krauss’s classes with me at the Graduate Center. Paul knew my French was good and that I had written an undergraduate thesis on Jean Baudrillard so he got me the gig doing simultaneous translation for the French theorist when he gave his first talk at NYU. There were hundreds of people in attendance. I wore a black bustier under a purple belted pantsuit I bought on Avenue C. It was loose and flowing, but with big shoulder pads. My $11,000-a-year fellowship, newly taxable under Ronald Reagan’s tax reform, was not really enough to live on, but I spent quite a bit of it on clothes and clubs anyway. I felt poor, but life felt rich in possibilities. Mary Anne nursed Paul when he was ill with AIDS-related diseases. He died in 1992.
Rising art star Sophie Calle made me her best friend for a few months and took me all over town while she tirelessly hustled her work and climbed the ladder of fame. I hung out backstage at the Wooster Group with my friend, Nancy Reilly. Nancy introduced me to Bette Gordon who introduced me to Kathy Acker, who was very kind to me. At Bette’s loft, we bumped into John Lurie. I dated an architect from the Midwest. I had been trapped in a box in the suburbs and then trapped in classrooms at Yale. New York City was freedom and danger and unpredictability. I thought I could leave everything in my past behind: every day seemed to open a new door to something completely unexpected. And one day it happened. When I got home from Latin class, I saw the red light blinking on our answering machine. I hit the play button and heard an unfamiliar, but pleasantly raspy voice with a slightly pretentious pseudo-British accent. It was Knight Landesman from Artforum. The name evoked the image of a tall man in a hand-knit sweater, leaning into cross-country skis, speeding his way to a quick drink and a sauna. I called him back the next day at the number he left. A receptionist answered the telephone. She put me on hold, but came back on almost immediately to tell me Knight would take my call. I was transferred quickly. Having worked as a temp, I knew from the rhythm of transfer to pick up that he was eager to speak to me.
When Knight and I broke up a year later in May 1989, he blamed me and I blamed me. He told me that there was something that was wrong with me. From the very first date it was clear that he would dictate all the terms of our relationship and he could have affairs and I couldn’t. He decided what nights of the week we could see each other: on the other nights, he was free to see other women while I was not free to see other men. He told me that he was small and funny looking and that he needed female attention. I didn’t understand that in negotiations this was called special pleading. I was used to it from mom and dad. I accepted his terms willingly, even enthusiastically. I thought of it as a challenge and gave myself an inner wink. I was going to show him that he didn’t need girlies any more! At that particular moment in my life, I was supremely confident in my femininity: from one night to the next the baby fat had melted from my cheeks and I went from pudgy undergraduate to head turning young woman in a tight gold sequined miniskirt, black lace tights, and leather jacket, walking across Astor Place, the winter wind sculpting my cheekbones along an oblique plane.
In return for my consent to Knight’s lop-sided terms, I got to have dinner with a lot of famous people, among them Brooke Adams (who starred in what would become my favorite movie of all time, Days of Heaven), Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Tim Burton, and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, along with a smattering of 1980s art stars like Julian Schnabel and Joseph Kosuth and their stunning wives and girlfriends. I met Christopher Walken at an after Broadway show opening party. More importantly, I swam in the ocean and the bays of Eastern Long Island. I took cabs up and downtown to dinner after I was done with reading for classes. I had the keys to his loft and sometimes we spent the night together in the Central Park South apartment he inherited from his first wife. I caught the Jitney on the East Side on Thursday afternoon and arrived in East Hampton to watch the sun set in gray and pink glory over Eastern Long Island.
When I took the train, Knight met me at the train station in his white 1970s giant boat of a car and brought me back to his one-bedroom house on Shelter Island. I rode a Vespa for the first time. I swam in the Atlantic whenever I could. He knew I loved the ocean so when we were headed back to the city, he would stop at a beach in Sagaponack and I would run out for one last dive into the water and change into dry clothes furtively in the back of his car, parked behind the dunes. I lived the Indian summer of 1988 in a state of sensual shock. I had been to beaches a handful of times in my entire life: Atlantic City once, Rye once, a jelly fish disaster-marked time in Waikiki with my family on our way to China. Once my family went to Jones Beach under duress.
Knight and I had both been looking forward to the summer of 1989, to long summer days and evenings in the tiny house on Shelter Island, perched on the edge of the water, overlooking the ferry to Sag Harbor. We were looking forward to the summer barbecues, languid dinner parties in East Hampton Springs, long swims in the Atlantic and the bay, afternoons of reading on the tiny porch, evenings huddled in the tiny bedroom. I blew it all up in May 1989 when I had a brief, torrid, shameful encounter with a handsome young man at an academic conference in California. When I returned to New York City, I was defiant. I told Knight what I had done and I thought we would have a fight and then stay together, but on different, more equal terms. He told me I was a spoiled brat and didn’t appreciate or honor what we had. He told me I had ruined everything. He asked for the keys to the loft back. We were both devastated.
Whatever you think about Artforum’s content, you cannot deny the sheer heft of the thing. The heavy paper stock gives the publication an aura of authority and inevitability. Before his resignation as its publisher this fall, Knight was the public face of the premier trade journal of the art world, and had been for almost 40 years. As the art world and the art market expanded in synchrony with escalating income inequality and financialization, Knight’s prodigious and tireless sales skills allowed the magazine to inflate with every bubble and grow slightly fatter with every ecstatic convulsion of the globalization of the art market. According to Sarah Thornton, “Artforum is to art what Vogue is to fashion and Rolling Stone was to rock and roll.” Knight not only sold ads, though — he managed the tone and style of Artforum: a little bit theoretical without being esoteric, a little bit political without being too political, very smooth without being slick.
In trade publishing, the firewall between editorial and advertising departments has always been very flimsy, but should Knight have had a hand in contacting and recruiting reviews editors? Whatever the propriety of the situation, Knight set himself up as my contact at the magazine. In spring of 1988, Knight answered my call with an energetic hello. He said that Hal Foster had given him my name as a possible candidate for a job as the reviews editor at Artforum. Was I interested? The salary was modest. I immediately replied yes. A week later, I arrived at the Artforum offices armed with my résumé and a thin folder of my meager oeuvre, a handful of reviews I had written for Flash Art and a few pieces of fiction containing explicitly sexual material that had appeared in downtown literary magazine, Between C & D. I wore a black velvet knee-baring vintage YSL skirt I had found at the old flea market that used to take place in a SoHo parking lot on the weekends. I had on my best double-breasted navy blue jacket, purchased at the same little Lower East Side boutique where I had bought the purple pantsuit.
Tony Korner, the owner of Artforum, was stylish and affable, but he took a hands-off approach to the everyday operations of the business. He was more interested in the arts of India and the rest of the subcontinent. Knight was the one who connected Artforum to 1980s New York, to the Reagan Restoration when money and celebrity were in fashion again in the art world. He helped the magazine repent for the theoretical and political excesses of the 1970s. International art fairs and intensive socializing were critical to Knight’s work. In the late 1980s, Knight had begun to nurture Artforum’s relationships with fashion designers and restaurateurs. Ads for restaurants and fashion designers of a certain quality appeared tastefully in the back of the book. Aspirational galleries with lots of money had to be satisfied with left-hand pages, buried in undesirable spots: the best places in the magazine were reserved for blue chip galleries, Barbara Gladstone, Mary Boone, Pace, Gagosian, in those days Castelli and Sonnabend. After we began dating regularly, I discovered that Knight traveled all the time. I was preoccupied and tormented in his absence. I assumed he was having affairs in London, Paris, Madrid, Basel, and Miami and Los Angeles. From what I could piece together of his accounts and other people’s accounts of art fairs, Knight was a welcome and permanent fixture at all the major events from Venice, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Berlin to Paris, and eventually South Korea and other spots in Asia, but that was after my time. At art fairs, he hosted Artforum dinners at his favorite restaurants with deft charm. He wore Keds and custom-made suits in primary colors: it seems he evolved into plaids in the 30 years since I knew him.
He said to me sagaciously, “When you’re a salesman, you have to make people smile when they see you, even if you have to play the clown. You always want other people to feel like they’re the center of attention. You want them to be able to laugh at you.” In 2017, The New York Times described him as “a pillar of the international art scene” and a “man-about-town.” The Knight I knew shied away from publicity and was self-deprecating about what he did: “I’m just a salesman, doll, I started out selling women’s hosiery. Now I sell ads for Artforum. Not much of a difference.” Adult Chinese men I knew, my father among them, communicated almost exclusively through self-aggrandizement and boasting. Knight’s sense of self-deflation was attractive to me.
When I arrived in person for my interview, the receptionist announced my arrival to Knight and he strode out of his office to greet me. I tried to hide my surprise at seeing a diminutive figure with a thickening middle-aged waist line. I expected a man called Knight to be anything but small with an impish air, tiny hands, and baby blue eyes that bulged out of his oval, almost egg-shaped head. He seemed to be covered in fine yellow down and had the aura of a newly hatched chick, but he shook my hand vigorously. He looked pleasantly rumpled, and his voice was bigger than his person. There was a big cigar and a swagger on that voice.
After some small talk, Knight ushered me into Charles Guarino’s pleasantly chaotic office where I was seated next to his dog, a King Charles spaniel I believe. Knight told me to let him know before I left the offices that day, and Guarino started to talk about the nuts and bolts of the job. The managing editor seemed concerned that I had had no editing experience whatsoever and that I would have to see about a hundred shows and solicit and edit 40 reviews a month, while a full-time graduate student. I would embrace the job I reassured him! I loved art and artists and galleries, and I loved theory and that artists were using theory in their work. Guarino smiled knowingly, got up to shake my hand, and walked me to the office of the Italian editor-in-chief, who was sitting at her pristine desk, swathed in a beige cashmere shawl. Ida Panicelli and I had nothing to say to each other. I could see her eyes glazing over when I started talking breathlessly about Walter Benjamin. I could not impress her with my youthful energy, my determination to work as hard as I could for $350.00 a week, but she was lovely and polite. I left my résumé and portfolio of writing with her. She dismissed me with a friendly smile and handshake; I walked back to the reception area and waited for Knight, who strode out to give me a warm handshake. He told me they or he would be in touch.
I played it cool with my friends, but the beautiful, messy, and airy offices, and the sense of ease the aesthetic and worldly Landesman, Guarino, and Panicelli exuded like an expensive perfume, had made a deep impression on me. I thought I knew rich people because of Yale, but I did not. The Artforum crew were bohemians with taste and money. A few days later when Knight called, my heart leaped when I heard his voice. He asked me to meet him for tea at the NoHo star. No decision yet he said. We sat in the light-filled restaurant and sipped tea and chatted. The next week, he called and made a date for me to have another quick lunch. Still no news he said, but he wanted to stay in touch. During that second lunch, he reached across the table and touched my cheek.
In the allegations brought against him this fall by a series of women who he approached in Artforum offices, openings, and art fairs, there is almost always a description of unwanted touching. I felt marked by that touch on the cheek. A stream of deep inchoate feelings and memories were released in me: his tiny violation of my bodily integrity hypnotized me. I felt ashamed, helpless, and desperately eager to please. If these feelings overwhelm you when you’re touched unexpectedly and suddenly, you’ve probably been seriously abused or neglected as a child. An anonymous male artist recounted to artnet news that Knight had twisted his nipples “during several encounters.” Artist Alice Lancaster told ArtNews that in 2015, Knight touched her nose at a brunch at his house. After the brunch, he sent her an email offering to pose nude for her if she painted in the nude. His unexpected touch was just another technique in his toolbox of seduction and domination. Other young people had better boundaries with him, thankfully. He could not have known that mom never touched me, that dad pawed me and tickled and hit me throughout my childhood, up into my adulthood, and that I had no idea what real affection was. In his response to the allegations of harassment against him, he admits to “testing boundaries.” He tested mine and mine failed.
A month after the interview, Charles Guarino called me and said, “You didn’t get the job as reviews editor, but would you like to review shows for us?” I said yes! Writing art reviews was a good distraction from graduate school. My courses that year were especially tough: German for reading, Latin, Linguistics, and History and Structure of Romance Languages. Visiting galleries and writing art reviews reminded me that I was in New York City, not Champaign-Urbana or Ann Arbor. Jack Bankowsky would be my editor. He had gotten the job for which I interviewed. I knew Jack’s sister, Katya, from Yale. Eventually, Jack would become the editor in chief of Artforum for 11 years. He would date a wealthy gallerist and become like Knight a fixture in the New York art world. I studied for exams and finished term papers, all in a state of tormented half-distraction. It was summer 1988. My boyfriend and I drove across the country in July as planned: we camped at Yellowstone and in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When I got back to New York in August, I gave up the lease on the apartment on Third Avenue because I was tired of sleeping in the living room. I was crashing at another friend’s place while looking for another apartment and I must have given Knight my friend’s phone number because Knight called the apartment the moment I got back to the East Coast. He invited me to dinner.
As we settled into our seats, he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was writing a novel. I told him I really wanted to be a writer. Immediately he asked, “Are you going to write about me? What would you write about me?” I laughed.
Then he asked me a series of probing questions that escalated in what we would call today “inappropriateness,” beginning with, “Was I in love with my boyfriend?” “Why was I in love with my boyfriend?” “Was he intelligent?” “Was he good in bed?” I started out confidently, but ended up stammering half-formed answers. Finally, Knight asked, me blue eyes twinkling, “Do you like his cock?” Writer Valerie Werder alleges that Landesman asked her if her boyfriend “was satisfying her” while tantalizing her with an introduction to Werder’s art world idol, Chris Kraus. According to another complainant in the suit, Abigail Toll, Knight invited her to a “secluded garden apartment” where he proceeded to ask her “intimate sexual questions about her past and current sexual partners.”
I believed at dinner that evening that Knight had some special insight into the state of emotional denial in which I was living. I thought he saw something in me that he wanted to draw out, and that the provocative and flirtatious conversations we had at the NoHo star were particular to us, to the growing bond between us. I thought we liked each other and that we were kindred spirits, tormented mischievous souls, looking for love in all the wrong places. I thought Knight would be able to understand me much better than the therapist to whom I was telling a bunch of half-truths and self-serving lies. I thought Knight was attracted to my particular combination of naïveté, awkwardness, and intelligence. In full transference, I saw him as an older, worldly man who would shake me out of the lassitude of suburban adolescent rebellion, book learning, and immigrant isolation. I was Knight’s eager student. Deeper into the relationship, he told me that he wanted to train me to be like him. He wanted to discipline, punish, and reward his compliant pupil.
After the relationship became sexual and physical, Knight began to mete out small humiliations. After our first date, he sent me home with the admonishment that I was a mediocre kisser and that he would teach me how to do it properly. When I left the Uptown apartment in a state of shock, he waved at me impishly and said, “You’re a doll!” He thrilled to it. I knew we were playing a pervert’s game, but I didn’t know how far he himself wanted to go. He told me I was all wrong for him. He made me feel as if I were imposing myself on him. There were things that he wouldn’t do with me because it “wasn’t right” for us: we never went to the movies, he never went down on me, I couldn’t touch his cock without his permission. When I asked him why he put these restrictions on me, he would say, “It’s just not right for you little darling! It’s not right for us!” I could only write notes to him in red ink. I could never use the phrase, “I love you!” The only flowers he liked were tulips.
“People don’t want to hear about you doll. It’s not your job to tell your story. It’s your job to make people tell their stories to you! You have to listen. You have to make people feel special. That’s what I do. Listen, ask questions, make them feel like the most important person in the room. Watch what I do! No one wants to hear about your mom. And what are you wearing tomorrow night? I don’t want you to wear that purple pantsuit thing! Why can’t you dress like me? Don’t you have a white dress?!” He chided me one night after a dinner party. I tried to be observant and entertaining. I was always cheerful. I tried to be charming. I was charming. I thought that if I were even more charming, he would take me with him to an art fair. He never did.
We learned to enjoy each other’s company. He made me laugh. Clarissa Dalrymple’s loft parties were my Guermantes Way. He made fun of me for putting too many citations in my art reviews. I thought he was an ancien régime libertine, like Crébillon, Laclos, or even Voltaire. I took his playboy aestheticism for knowledge of the good life. At the end of our relationship, when we were fighting all the time, I told him that I thought he was running away from the death of his father, that he needed help to give up his need for total control. He brushed me off. Very shortly after we broke up, he had a child with a woman he barely knew who he met at an art fair. She moved from Europe to be with him and he married her. Then when that relationship broke up and he married a woman half his age, I told myself that he had finally found the right person. I kept telling myself that, up to this fall. When Knight was impatient with me, he told me that I was 1) into power, 2) out of control. It turned out he was describing himself. The third marriage did not mellow him: according to the allegations in the suit filed against him, in the past 15 years at least, his methods of seduction grew more frantic, more violent, and more angry, even as his fortunes and the fortunes of the magazine waxed together.
The complaint filed October 25, 2017, against Landesman in the New York Supreme Court states very simply that “he took advantage of […] [the complainants] at ‘the start of their careers’ when they were ‘economically and professionally vulnerable.’” It’s hard for me to admit that the key to my sentimental education was found in a lawsuit, quoted in The New York Times, almost 30 years after a breakup that left me heartbroken and plagued by nightmares and regrets. Knight abused the power he had over me and I allowed him to do so for as long as I could bear it. He continued to chase the thrill of domination and control over naïve young women, long after our brief affair was over. For me erotic masochism was like mother’s milk or heroin. I had to kick the habit. I had to learn how to have relationships with people completely anew. I thought I understood what had happened to me between 1988 and 1989 until I read of this lawsuit. I left the art world because of my relationship with him: I was convinced that I could not carve a space out for myself in it because the art world and the art market were the exclusive purview of rich perverts.
I loved art and I loved white cubes and I still love looking at things on and off the wall. I craved the time and space to be a writer. Knight wouldn’t give me any peace of mind to think or write clearly. When we were together, I was entirely preoccupied by him and the pain he was causing me and the favors, social, sexual, and financial he held before me as rationed treats. For the 10 months in 1988 I dated Knight, I was on a state of high alert against being wounded. For years afterward, I felt as if the failure of our relationship was entirely my fault. I cared about him deeply and I thought we could help each other and love each other and that our erotic compatibilities would work themselves out into love and trust and sensuality and confidence and that I would be a New York intellectual, a woman of taste and means and scholarship and that I would write all the things I wanted to write because Knight and I would be healed by a life lived together in beauty and grace and good real estate. We would accept each other’s darkest wishes and we would move on from there together.
For 30 years, I have carried with me a sense of shame and guilt about our breakup. Long after I left New York City, I had a recurrent dream about standing in the cold, with snow falling on me, late at night on lower Broadway, looking up at the bright lights of his loft, knowing I could never get back in there again and I would wake up weeping with a sense of loss. Knight made sure he stayed in my life. Every month, I would be reminded of him when I ripped open the plastic envelope in which my complimentary copy of Artforum was wrapped. I would find a note from him written with red ink, punctuated with exclamation points, wishing me and the men in my life well.
Knight’s clownish self-deprecation turned into something much more coarse and abject. It’s one thing to think of oneself as the perfect courtier, it’s another to urge on one’s unwilling subordinates in the art of analingus. He must have grown bored of trying to entertain and please mercurial richer people in well-lit spaces. Salesmanship consumed him and it consumed everything in his life. I like to believe that I caught him at a moment when things might have gone differently, before his eccentricities hardened into tics, just as he was becoming a twisted and hollow “pillar” of the international art world.
Knight’s fall from art world grace has shaken me to the core: I am a slightly different person today than I was on October 24, 2017, the day before the first stories about the suit filed against him appeared in the news. Amanda Schmitt and the other women who went public in their complaint against Knight and Artforum have inadvertently provided me unexpected and painful new insights and perspectives on my past. During our breakup, I felt utterly defeated. I learned to mistrust my instincts in order to make what happened the story of my hubris and foolishness. What I realize now is that there was no way we could have lasted as a couple. There was no meeting place for us, no middle ground, no compromise. What I wanted from life and what he wanted from life were utterly different. Knight groomed me and countless other women after me to accept his will and his view of the world. He tried to strip a series of young women of their confidence and dignity when they were professionally, emotionally, and economically vulnerable as I once was. When the stories of the women who had been harassed by Knight were made public, I realized very suddenly that I wasn’t alone and that my story was not at all singular. The women in the suit against Knight gave me a gift, and I don’t know how to thank them for it. Before October 25, 2017, I felt a little bit cursed that I had to bear the burden of a secret humiliation and a shameful sense of loss and failure, one that my friends, family, colleagues, and students would not be able to accept or understand. The curse has been lifted. We will see what happens next.
Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Author of two academic monographs, Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton and American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, she has also published a novel called Oriental Girls Desire Romance. She is working on a memoir, titled Panda Gifts.